A judge opened an election-year trial on Tuesday with an important legal question: How far can she go if she finds the General Assembly enacted a congressional district map that illegally disadvantages Republican voters?
In two Anne Arundel County Circuit Court lawsuits being considered together, Republican elected officials and voters are asking Lynne A. Battaglia, a retired state appeals court judge, to toss out the map approved by the Democrat-controlled legislature in December.
One of the GOP groups, led by Del. Neil Parrott of Washington County, is asking Battaglia to order the state to fashion a new map or — in the interim — to use one in the June 28 primary that was created by a commission appointed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan that included Democratic, Republican and independent voters.
Another participant in the case, longtime gerrymandering opponent Stephen M. Shapiro of Montgomery County, has submitted a “friend of the court” brief proposing a handful of alternative maps that he says would remove any “impermissible elements” from the boundary lines approved by the General Assembly.
Battaglia, in remarks before testimony began, said she had authority to issue an injunction blocking use of the current map, under which Democrats likely would retain control over seven of the state’s eight congressional seats. The sole district represented by a Republican, the Eastern Shore-based seat of U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, would become more competitive.
But the judge suggested it was unclear what might happen next. Noting the replacement maps proposed in the case, she said she did not know if the court could use one as a substitute if it finds the Democrats’ map deficient.
“I’m not clear that this court has the authority to do that,” Battaglia said.
Doug Mayer, a former Hogan aide working with an advocacy group called Fair Maps Maryland that organized the map challenges, declined to be interviewed about possible outcomes while the trial is ongoing. A spokesperson for Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat defending the state’s position, also declined to comment.
Courts around the country historically have employed a variety of remedies in redistricting cases. Those fixes have included redrawing the maps themselves or ordering the state legislature to craft new boundaries.
According to legal experts, the Maryland case could be appealed by either side and ultimately be decided by the Maryland Court of Appeals.
The process of integrating another new map into the election would take considerable time. After new lines are drawn and approved, elections officials must find polling places and adjust voter information to reflect those boundary shifts.
The state has indicated that any significant, court-ordered changes to the map likely would force the election to be delayed.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Democratic leaders say their map represents an improvement over Maryland’s current congressional map, which was adopted in 2011, because it makes most districts more compact and makes six of the eight at least somewhat more competitive.
But Sean Trende, an election analyst for RealClearPolitics, testified Tuesday that — based on analyses of districts’ compactness and other characteristics — the Maryland map appeared highly partisan. He said its creators had “produced seven districts where Democrats would be overwhelmingly favored.”
Trende, called by Republican plaintiffs, was the first in a progression of expert witnesses expected to be summoned by both sides in the trial, which may last the rest of the week.
States are required to redraw their electoral maps once every decade to adjust for population changes since the last census and ensure that voters have roughly equal say in electing politicians to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Courts around the country have been dealing this year with complaints of alleged “gerrymandering.” Gerrymandering commonly involves stacking large numbers of the opposite party’s voters into a limited number of districts, leaving that party with too few voters to compete everywhere else.
In December, three Republican state delegates and others challenged the legality of the Maryland General Assembly-approved map of delegates’ and state senators’ districts. The three delegates say the maps don’t abide by Maryland constitutional guidelines. That case is ongoing.
In Baltimore County, a federal judge is deciding whether a new map of County Council districts is acceptable under the Voting Rights Act. The council’s original map was rejected on Feb. 22 by the court, which said it would disadvantage Black voters.